The Trump administration has thus far struggled to fill key foreign policy and national security positions. Part of this struggle stems from an unwillingness to entertain the appointment of conservatives who spoke out against the president during the 2016 campaign, many of whom specialize in foreign policy and national security. Another part has to do with the seemingly conscious effort of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to dismantle the State Department under the auspices of an organization reform effort.
Yet with tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula due to the Kim regime’s missile tests and President Trump’s rhetoric about “fire and fury,” it would seem there would be some sense of urgency in appointing the administration’s ambassador to the South Korea.
That does not seem to be the case though seeing as this week the administration decided against nominating Victor Cha of Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies to the post.
Victor D. Cha, an academic who served in the George W. Bush administration, raised his concerns with National Security Council officials over their consideration of a limited strike on the North aimed at sending a message without sparking a wider war — a risky concept known as a “bloody nose” strategy.
Cha also objected to the administration’s threats to tear up a bilateral trade deal with Seoul that President Trump has called unfair to American companies. The administration last week imposed new tariffs on imports of washing machines and solar energy panels, a move criticized by the South Korean government.
The White House had spent months conducting a security and financial background check on Cha, and U.S. officials formally notified Seoul in December of Trump’s intent to send his nomination to the Senate. South Korean officials quickly signed off on Cha, a formal process in international affairs known as “Agrément.”
A source told the Post that an issue came up during Cha’s background check, but no specifics were offered. And lo and behold, with the ambassadorship no longer on the table, the private disagreement over the “bloody nose” became public that same day in the form of a Washington Post opinion piece by one Victor Cha:
[T]here is a point at which hope must give in to logic. If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind? And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?
Some have argued the risks are still worth taking because it’s better that people die “over there” than “over here.” On any given day, there are 230,000 Americans in South Korea and 90,000 or so in Japan. Given that an evacuation of so many citizens would be virtually impossible under a rain of North Korean artillery and missiles (potentially laced with biochemical weapons), these Americans would most likely have to hunker down until the war was over.
While our population in Japan might be protected by U.S. missile defenses, the U.S. population in South Korea, let alone millions of South Koreans, has no similar active defenses against a barrage of North Korean artillery (aside from counterfire artillery). To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.
The alternative strategy Cha lays out—including continued diplomatic pressure, defensive measures for Japan and South Korea, a maritime counter proliferation effort, and preparations for military action if necessary in response to a North Korea attack—has its problems as well. But foreign policy is often about choosing among the best of bad options. Out of those bad options, the “bloody nose” in the form of a preemptive strike that the administration has floated may be the worst. It is too bad that Victor Cha will not have the opportunity to influence the administration’s policy on North Korea simply because he was wise enough to see that.